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Porch Songs

Joe Ely, Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, and Guy Clark, Rams Head Live, Feb. 20

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 2/23/2005

There they were: the Mount Rushmore of American songwriting, four faces as weathered and craggy as a South Dakota mountain. Sitting in a semicircle of padded orange chairs at Rams Head Live, arranged in alphabetical order from stage left to stage right, were Guy Clark, Joe Ely, John Hiatt, and Lyle Lovett, three Texans and a Hoosier, each with an acoustic guitar resting on his right thigh.

Starting with Clark and then continuing with Ely, Hiatt, and Lovett, they each chose a song on the spur of the moment. Sometimes they sang alone; sometimes one or more of the others joined in on guitar or vocals. Round and round they went until each singer had done six numbers; the group shared the lead vocals on Jesse Winchester’s “Brand New Tennessee Waltz” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” including the rarely sung socialist verses.

The four have done a short tour together almost every year since 1990, but seldom in a situation like this. When the standing Baltimore crowd started yelping after Clark sang “Homegrown Tomatoes” on the second go-round, the Lone Staters felt like they were in a dance hall back home. “We’ve been mostly playing for people sitting down,” Ely commented. “And this is a whole different thing.” “They’re frisky,” Clark told him.

The four responded with vibrant performances, as if they were trying to impress not only the frisky audience but each other. When Hiatt reached the bridge from “Drive South,” the part where he tells his lover to leave behind her nylons because it gets hot where they’re goin’, he turned it into a spoken-word monologue from a smooth-talking lothario, and Ely doubled over in laughter. When, in Lovett’s song, “If I Had a Boat,” Tonto told the Lone Ranger, “Kemo Sabe, kiss my ass, I bought a boat,” Hiatt leaned back in his chair, chuckling over the alliteration and internal rhyme.

When Ely played “For Your Love”—”the fastest song I ever wrote”—he shouted out the final verse couplet, “Your love ain’t just the hot sauce/ it’s the whole enchilada.” That prompted Lovett to drolly explain that enchiladas are like the crab cakes of Texas. And that prompted Hiatt to add that tuna loaf is the enchilada of his home state, Indiana.

Clark, his gray hair brushed back like that of a Civil War senator, has been an elder mentor to the three others, but he’s still a productive songwriter and introduced the evening’s only unrecorded number, “Move With Me, Magdalene.” He was saluted by Lovett, who sang Clark’s early ballad “Step Inside This House” with heartfelt respect and admiration. Clark responded with an obviously gratified, slightly embarrassed grin.

It was Hiatt, though, who stole the show. He has obviously been wood-shedding on the guitar, for he was playing with a precision and flair he has never displayed in the past. He played a lively rockabilly solo on Ely’s “Up on the Ridge,” a long blues solo of Lovett’s “My Baby Don’t Tolerate,” and lit up his own songs, such as “Thing Called Love” and “Riding With the King,” with sparkling solos and fearless vocals. On “Memphis in the Meantime,” he crowed, “I don’t think Toby Keith is ever gonna record this song”—which explains why there was more good songwriting on this night than on any of the recent CMA Awards shows.

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